Britain’s love for an imaginary Nordic paradise

The cosy jumpers, the vast brooding sky: what’s not to like about Scandinavian television?

It was the size of the sky that first captivated me. In the British television adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander detective novels, the horizon always seemed somehow lower than it should be. Most of the time, at least two-thirds of the screen was slate grey, or steely blue, or else a deep black stippled with stars. Kenneth Branagh played Mankell’s tortured Swedish detective, his face working hard in the gaps of the sparse script, brooding with his back to all that sky.

This was just the start. Once Branagh’s Wallander had been devoured, there was still the Swedish adaptation of Mankell’s novels to enjoy, and then suddenly I was watching more television with English subtitles than without. The Killing, Borgen, Arne Dahl, The Protectors, The Bridge – Scandinavian television became the reason we stayed at home on Saturday nights.

The “Nordic noir” phenomenon, as it has become known, is no longer confined to the small screen. On 1 and 2 February, a former brewery in east London played host to Nordicana, “the UK’s only festival of Nordic fiction and film”. Thousands packed into a chilly, windowless warehouse space to see actors and writers from the various shows try to account for their wild popularity beyond their intended audience in Scandinavia.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Birgitte Nyborg, the lead in the Danish political drama Borgen, clearly has ambiguous feelings about the way the role has changed her life. “I know it’s really what rock stars say, but I do ‘love my fans’,” she jokes – but then seems a little less sure of this once the “fans” at Nordicana start asking her such questions as: “Which are better in bed, English or Danish men?”, or spending minutes enthusing about her in broken, hesitant Danish. Not all Nordic noir fans are just enthralled by the skyscapes.

Do these dramas deserve their critical success, though? Or do we enjoy them merely because the subtitles lend a smug feeling of superiority? Some of the performances – by Knudsen in Borgen, say, or Sofia Helin as the abrupt, inspired detective Saga Noren in The Bridge – are undoubtedly excellent, but awkward dialogue and improbable plots are perhaps less noticeable here than they would be otherwise. Everything about them – the landscapes, the interiors, the languages – has kindled a love affair with a version of these countries that may not exist.

We think of Scandinavia as a progressive utopia where gender equality rules politics and there are minimalist lamps in every house. But according to Michael Booth, the author of a new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the Truth About the Nordic Miracle, our vision bears little relation to reality. “Once you go beyond the western media’s current Scandinavian tropes … a more complex, often darker, occasionally quite troubling picture begins to emerge.”

Yet even though Booth’s research into levels of taxation and reliance on antidepressants has a much stronger grasp of reality, it will make little difference to our adoration. It is exactly the same kind of comfortable cognitive dissonance that makes Downton Abbey such a success in the US – of course American viewers can tell it’s camp and ridiculous and poorly scripted, but investing in the belief that the British aristocracy was just like this is far too enjoyable for us to stop watching.

We love our imaginary Nordic paradise too much to abandon it now – the jumpers are cosy, the sky is vast, and its television is very, very good.

Kenneth Branagh in Wallander.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.